rom a small unassuming hut in the middle of an encampment in a central London park, HS2 protesters have spent months secretly digging a 100ft labyrinth of tunnels in protest over the high-speed railway.
HS2 Rebellion, an alliance of groups and individuals campaigning against the planned rail network, said “tree protectors” are poised to occupy the Great Escape style network under Euston Square Gardens “for as long as it takes to stop HS2”.
HS2 Ltd hired security guards and police, who moved to remove the protesters from the tunnels and in tree camps from 5am this morning.
A HS2 Ltd spokeswoman said the eviction was started to keep works on the high-speed railway on schedule and the company have taken “legal temporary possession of Euston Square Gardens to progress construction of the new Euston Station”. Construction works are due to begin in January and continue until December.
She added: “These protests are a danger to the safety of the protestors, our staff and the general public, and put unnecessary strain on the emergency services during a pandemic. The protestors are currently trespassing on land that is legally possessed by HS2.”
According to HS2 Rebellion, tunnellers worked “around the clock” using pickaxes, shovels and buckets to create the network, code-named Calvin.
With the help of local residents, spoil from digging has been used to “fortify the barricades” at the network’s entrance and insulate the “pallet fortress” to keep tunnellers warm, as they sleep between shifts.
“We don’t go as far as putting the soil down our trousers,” one protestor told the BBC referencing Steve McQueen’s 1963 war film The Great Escape.
Tunnels are supported by wooden joists and thick boards to prevent collapse. There are stashes of food and water inside, protesters said.
The centrepiece of the camp, which has provided free food, bedding and accommodation for scores of homeless people, is Buckingham Pallets.
As well as concealing the tree protectors tunnel entrance, this has acted as the camp hub. It features two pallet towers, a kitchen, living room, compost toilet and art created by several local artists.
A community notification issued in December detailed the need to build an “interim” taxi rank on the east side of Euston Square Gardens to support the construction of a proposed HS2 station.
In a statement earlier, HS2 Rebellion said it had expected protesters to be evicted from the site from Wednesday morning.
It added: “They believe they can hold out in the tunnel for several weeks and hope in this time that a court will rule against HS2 for breaking the law by attempting an eviction without a court order and during the national coronavirus lockdown.”
The group said lawyers for the Euston Square Gardens Protection Camp had written to HS2 “advising them of the illegality of any such eviction attempt at this time”.
HS2 Rebellion claims that the planned HS2 line, due to link up London, the Midlands, the North of England and Scotland, will see 108 ancient woodlands “destroyed” and “countless people being forced from the homes and businesses”.
HS2 Ltd said only 43 ancient woodlands would be affected by the railway’s route between London and Crewe, with 80 per cent of their total area remaining intact.
HS2 Rebellion called on the Government to scrap the “expensive, unpopular and destructive” scheme “before it is too late” and argued for a National Citizens Assembly to “lead the way out of the climate and ecological emergency”.
One protester, Blue Sanford, 18, from London, said: “I’m angry that the Government is still effectively ignoring this crisis despite declaring a climate and ecological emergency two years ago.
“I’m in this tunnel because they are irresponsibly putting my life at risk from the climate and ecological emergency.
“They are behaving in a way that is so reckless and unsafe that I don’t feel they are giving us any option but to protest in this way to help save our own lives and the lives of all the people round the world.”
Barrister Paul Powlesland, who works with environmental campaigners, wrote: “Incredibly impressive that the activists seeking to stop HS2’s destruction have dug an actual tunnel in the heart of central London to avoid eviction. It’s like a nature protection version of the great escape!”
Despite it running tens of billions of pounds over budget and several years behind schedule, Prime Minister Boris Johnson gave the green light for the railway in February 2020.
The spokeswoman for HS2 Ltd said: “Illegal action such as this is costly to the taxpayer and a danger to the safety of the activists, HS2 staff, High Court enforcement officers and the general public, as well as putting unnecessary strain on the emergency services during the pandemic.
“Safety is our first priority when taking possession of land and removing illegal encampments.”
She said HS2 provided “a cleaner, greener way to travel, helping to cut the number of cars and lorries on our roads, reduce demand for domestic flights, and help the country to cut its carbon emissions in the fight against climate change”.
The spokeswoman said HS2 had been approved by MPs on “multiple occasions”, would support Britain’s economic recovery and was supporting thousands of jobs.
Additional reporting by PA Media